Asia can be divided roughly into three geographic regions, which primarily by the nature of their proximity over time share some cultural similarities. However, diversity between rather than similarity among, remains the major characteristic.
comprises China, (sometimes referred to as the People's Republic of China and including the previous European colonies Hong Kong and Macau), Japan, North and South Korea, and Taiwan (Republic of China). Since the rapid rise of Japan post WW2, Japan has traditionally been seen as the economic power and cultural influencer of East and South East Asia, due to it's business investment and trade interdependencies with other nations. Indeed Japan is also the second most powerful world economy after the USA. However in recent years, China is seen by many as taking over the "lead" role in the next decade or two, with rapid economic growth and consumer growth. Japan, Taiwan, Korea (primarily though manufacturing) and Hong Kong (primarily through services and finance) were the major economic tigers behind Asia's growth in the the late 1900's.
The business predominance of East Asia in the whole region can be measured by the brand recognition for their companies. Sony, Samsung, ACER, Mitsubishi, Toyota - these are just a few East Asian companies that dominate multi-national brands.
South Korea is perhaps the most wired country on earth, with IT a major contributor to growth and competitive advantage, with Japan and then Taiwan not far behind in their IT industry.
China, as almost all know, is the most populated country in the world. Together with India, it accounts for almost 40% of the world's population. While most are wary of offical statistics, clearly China is the most rapidly expanding significant consumer market worldwide.
South East Asia
comprises roughly in order of population - Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, Malaysia, Myanmar (previously called Burma), Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Singapore, and Brunei. Indonesia dominates this sub-region in both population and size. Singapore though one of the smallest countries geographically and population-wise, is the economic power house of the region, and tiny Brunei due to its oil wealth, joins Singapore as one of the wealthiest countries in the world.
Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei are primarily Malay, converted to Islam in relatively modern times, with significant but much lower Malay/Muslim populations in Southern Thailand, the Southern Philippines. Singapore also has a minority but smaller percentage of Malay Muslims. This group share common beliefs and religion, despite residing in different countries. However if you look at a map of the region, it can be seen instantly that geography rather than national boundaries is key.
Indian emigration also is a key historic factor in South East Asian ethnic make-up, as Indian traders, particularly in spices, crossed the straits to South East Asia, and in latter years immigrated to provide labour for plantations, continue trading, and to service the legal and other skill groups (such as tailoring) and professions in developing countries.
It was also in South East Asia that the overseas Chinese community really made their home. Singapore is 75% Chinese, and in Malaysia around 40%. The newly settled Chinese in these countries came to dominate business (from small family companies to massive conglomarates and multi-national companies). In countries like Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and of course Indo Chinese countries bordering China, Chinese proportion of wealth far exceeds their proportion of the population. Unlike Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia where cultural and religious prescriptions make it almost impossible, inter-marriage is very common in Thailand.
There is a further subgrouping in South East Asia, referred to as Indo-China which includes Thailand, Burma/Myanmar, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Laos. Apart from Thailand, these countries remain or were in the past socialist countries. Thailand is seen as the center of this high potential region, but only Thailand has been able to develop to any major extent, the other countries held back by communist policies and extreme poverty in the past. They remain perhaps the most exciting consumer markets after China for the not-risk-adverse.
comprises India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh. India is the second most populated country in the world, characterised by Hindusim, and a strong IT sector, but is continually held back by extremes of urban poverty. A long period of English colonialism is reflected in relatively good English skills, and the intersection of caste and class, has created perhaps one of the most status-conscious communities on earth. Pakistan is a strategic ally with the US due to oil interests and the War Against Terror, and has seen their influence increase in the last year. The Muslim part of the old English Indian empire, Pakistan is a modern developing country.
Asia's economy is marked first and foremost by diversity, as can be seen by reviewing the capsules of different countries in Asia Market Research dot com. Today the Asian economy can be characterised thus:
While the above summary can not do justice to massive differences and includes anomolies in the categorization, it is a first step towards understanding the major six country-based factors and one international factor characterising the Asian market economy as a whole.
Japan's economic decline has accelerated in the past 5 years from a gradual decline for the last 12 years, though it still remains the world's largest economy after the US. It's key character - a society where the corporate sector supplanted government social security, yet where sturdy long term business-government relationships guided commerce, has reached the end of it's useful life by the onslaught of globalisation and the by-products of this very incestuousness. Other advantages are more enduring and will ensure Japan's economic ascendency - a disciplined workforce, a commitment to education and efficiency, and continued cultural and corporate colonization of the majority of Asian tigers and tiger cubs.
Recent history demonstrates that the competitive economic advantages of the tiger (Taiwan, South Korea, Hong Kong and Singapore) and tiger cub (Malaysia, Thailand, Philippines) economies have declined as salary and commercial real estate soared, and global investors found more cost effective vehicles for their manufacturing and industrial operations. Almost all of these economies were shocked by the realization that their value to the rest of the world was in terms of their cost effectiveness rather than management and economic expertise. It was an easy-money boom decade which encouraged corruption, cronyism, conspicuous consumption, face over substance, and a culture of taking rather than giving.
The Asian economic crisis dealt a solid blow to the economies of Thailand and Malaysia who were still in the process of moving from an agricultural to industrial base, but not as critically as Indonesia where abject poverty and inequality caught up to a corrupt administration, and the Philippines where democracy failed miserably in serving up a poorly qualified President. It is only recently that recovery has commenced.
Disappointments were Vietnam and Indo-China as a whole, mainly strangled by communist doctrine and massive cronyism.
Subsequently, the bright spots were Singapore, whose contingency plans and open global-focused economic strategy isolated itself from the regional fall out, China, fast liberating it's massive resources to the disciplines of the free market, and India, best positioned of all to take advantage of the new economy with quality human resources and salary rates competitively positioned to become the IT outsourcing center of the world.
The IT based new economy boom lost it's innocence and bubble inflated valuations just as it was reaching a slow-off-the mark Asia. It cyber centres such as Singapore's intelligent island, Malaysia's curiously named "Multi-media Super Corridor" (MSC), Hong Kong's Cyber Port and Taiwanese and Korean initiatives were based on investors willing to invest in the high priced facilities offered.
Unlike the original cyber center in Silicone valley which was based on evolution and innovation born in backyard garages, many of the high profile IT centers of Asia offer a entry price only affordable by old money and established groups, mostly unwilling to take the risks and take on the off-the-wall ideas necessary. The Dot Com and new economy crash, is increasingly passing the platter to lower entry fee IT centres, meaning that India, China, and maybe new initiatives in Phuket Thailand have massive potential to transform these economies.
The Asia Pacific hosts two thirds of the world's population. Three Asian countries - China, India, and Indonesia are among the four most populous nations in the world. While the Asian economic crisis caused a hiccup in the growth of the fastest growing economies of the past dozen years (Singapore, South Korea Thailand, Malaysia), almost all Asian countries are now expecting only positive growth in 2002, and more later. Japan, as the leader in the region, faces continued economic problems, yet they remain the second largest economy world wide, and continue to influence the economies of those countries around them. Traditional indices of a turn around in economic growth - new car sales, electronic consumer goods, even advertising spend, were all in the black in 2000-1 but there are now emerging signs of a bottoming out.
The Asian economic crisis caused limited change in the structure of economics, corporations, and the root of all evil - finance and banking institutions, even though this varied between countries. China's restructuring was in place anyway, Singapore merely sped up the existing process, Malaysia initially believed that the crisis was not their own doing but others - meaning that there was little incentive to change government and corporate structures. Only in Thailand and Indonesia, where the extent of their predicament meant IMF help was the only option, was there any initial significant restructuring, and there has been much backsliding since as the fall out from IMF prescriptions imposed a heavy load on the poor in particular, and initiated nationalist sentiments against bodies such as the IMF, financed mainly be the West, and of course, like any investors, want a return of their investments.
To a large extent, this propelled a change of government in Thailand, to a new crew promising an alternative, homegrown approach to recovery. The result is that the consumer market in most of Asia is showing little change from the trend exhibited throughout Asia's ascendency to an economic powerhouse - the poor have got much poorer, the middle class has got bigger retaining their slice of the pie, and the rich have got much richer. Most importantly, the black market continues to form a larger part of the "real economy". The informal economy, from prostitution to products based on theft of intellectual property available from traditional and government tolerated "pasars" region wide, bribes, smuggling and kick backs has been estimated at anything up to 30% of the "Real economy". If your product can be copied or ripped off, make sure you have a strategy to minimise the loss.
The middle class continues to get comparatively bigger, and Japanese/Western media colonialism ensures that international branded goods, electronic consumer goods and luxury items find a ready market. Fuelled by the emphasis on "face", one example in a product class is high demand for cosmetics. (skin whiteners and breast enhancers are a top selling category in this segment). The Information Age and the Internet has fueled consumer demand for computer-related products, handphones, and geeky appliances and peripherals, not more so than in Japan and Korea. And in almost all areas, in South East Asian regions, overseas brands (Japanese, European, and US) rule! But along with the global slowdown has come reduced demand in Asia as well, though as a geograpic market, the Asia Pacific is seen as relatively healthy compared to other markets. This should not be expected to continue for long, as much of Asia is still at "catch-ip" phase.
The youth market in South East Asia is becoming wealthier, but here Japanese trends and fashion has the edge, especially in fashion conscious cities such as Bangkok and increasingly Singapore. Western youth culture has always been a big seller, yet indigenous pop culture, even though mainly imported from Japan and Hong Kong, is gaining ground among a more politically conscious, and less genuflective youth market. Canto-pop rules, though Malay/Bumi Rock has a way to go! Fashion and cosmetics geared for youth represent a growing market. That said, Asian youth on the whole are a fickle lot. Trend change quickly in these fast growing and maturing markets. The key is getting to the market quickly and continually refining your offerings for next year's market. Get close to your market; talk to the customer; understand their motives, dreams and egos. Most importantly, never never assume that the market is the same across countries, regions, and provinces.
As a whole, the Asian region remains relatively stable, though there are concerns on several fronts.
Indonesia remains the major concern, with sucessionist claims from resource rich Aceh, continued conflict in East Timor, and flare points still in Lombok and Kalimantan. While religion is blamed by the shallow Western press, religious conflicts are just a symptom of the inequality in modern day Indonesia. Moslems in outlying provinces are simply the poorest in Indonesia and have felt little benefit from Indonesia's decade of growth. Poverty is endemic.
The Golkar party of deposed President Suharto certainly helped reduce poverty in their time in power, but wealth was unequally distributed, both between Jakarta and the rest of the country, and government buddies/families and the rest. Also as a result of a long and powerful period in power, where Suharto prepared only the chosen ones to take over power, the leadership void was obviously going to create massive problems in the changeover.
The winner in the election was Megawati, but her elevation to power was seem as unacceptable by many. A Hindu and a woman, and personally uncomfortable in a leadership role, the alternatives were not much better for the new power elite. The result was Abdurahman Wahid, a well respected cleric, both by Moslems and international visitors. An unwilling candidate at first, Gus Dur allowed himself to be the sacrificial lamb for the sake of ensuring other more extreme candidates and Megawati herself achieving power. He was a compromise choice, and a transitional president.
Indonesia's problem is that the choice now after almost 2 years, is that the present alternatives do not look any better. With business confidence still low, continued separatist and religious conflict, a moribund economy, and allegations of corruption, it may well be 2 wasted years. Then again, it is possible for things to have been much worse.
Behind these "religious" riots which could potentially disrupt Indonesia's security, are political factions in Jakarta, attempting to jockey for space in a new administration. While the usual suspects are forces loyal to the Suharto elite, the possible and far more dangerous alternative is that are being encouraged by even more extreme players in Jakarta.
Expect riots to continue until Wahid resigns or is impeached - and well after. And then a very tense political game and aftermath, meaning political stability in Indonesia is still a long way off. The "Blame Wahid" game covers up massive political manouevering among other, far more ambitious figures. Taking a wider perspective, a longer sustained period of political instability is a concern for nearby Singapore, Malaysia, and Philippines, and a more extreme leadership taking over from the moderate Wahid may cause a knock on effect in political extremism in these countries.
Taiwanese-China relations are the next trouble spot, though it remains at the same level of intensity as always. A stalemate exists while China fetes the international community while at the same time increasing verbal attacks on Taiwan.
Despite problems for the Mahathir machine in Malaysia with opposition fundamentalist parties gaining power in Northern Malaysia, and Keadilan's win in Lunas late 2000, it is extremely unlikely, with the relative wealth in Malaysia, for political change other than through the electoral system. At no stage was Malaysia exposed to the sort of political instability evident in Indonesia and the Philippines, due to relatively less poverty and ethnic diversity. The greatest threat to stability in Malaysia is increasing authoritarianism by the ruling party, in the form of detention without trial for political opponents and failure to provide an outlet for dissenting opinion, in an effort to retrench their own political support. However at present, the ruling BN coalition and ruling elite knows the Malaysian people well, and have yet to step over the line between maintaining power and seeding a people's revolution. The next general elections are due in 3 years.
In the Philippines, power has shifted out of the hands of the rebel and allegedly corrupt Estrada and back into the hands of the Filipino family elite that hitherto ran the Philippines. Despite continued support for Estrada in the provinces and poorer areas, the middle and elite class are now back in charge, and few expect political problems in the near future. The more immediate concerns are continued kidnappings of (mainly) Chinese businessmen, and the activities of Moslem separatists in outlying provinces.
China's communist rulers are sitting pretty while the economy expands and they can keep the benefits rolling out to the population as a whole.
Religion and Ethnicity
Check the same section under different countries here, as Asia hosts almost all major world religions and ethnic groups. However it is useful to note that Islam and Buddhism predominates throughout, with Islam being the fastest growing religion in the region, as it is world wide.
Unlike Hinduism and Buddhism which originated and flourished in Asia, Islam and Christianity were introduced in relatively modern times.
Islam manifests itself in various forms throughout the region, from the fundamentalist kind in Middle Eastern countries and Brunei, certain Islam governed states in Malaysia, and Southern provinces in the Philippines to the more tolerant form adopted by Malaysia as a whole, where Islam police exist to enforce religious laws on Malay's but leave the rest of the populace alone. Indonesia, where 90% of the more than 2.1 million are Muslim's adopted the Panscilia, which constitutionally enshrines separation of religion and state. Apart from the more remote provinces of Indonesia, Islam is manifest as a more tolerant and gentle form.
While Islam prescriptions against the ingestion of pork, amphibians, certain other animal products, alcohol, and exposure of body parts of women are well known, less known are other religious laws governing such things as the accumulation of interest. While extra-marital relations are banned, Muslim men are permitted to take on more than one wife, if their existing ones agree and they can prove they can support them. The actual number depends on the religious authorities in each country. In Malaysia, the upper limit is four.
The great multi-cultural mix in Malaysia is admired by many visitors for the peaceful existence of Islam, Buddhist and Hindu religions. However such a situation requires constant vigilance by government however, where expressing views that are perceived as encouraging interracial conflict are prohibited by law. Malays automatically Islam at birth, and conversion is strongly discouraged by cultural and religious norms that result in Moslems who convert being cut off by their family, as well as loss of government-prescribed Moslem privileges. These rules act to allow Malaysia to comfortably allow the practice of all religions, as long as the lines are not crossed. Unlike neighbouring countries such as Thailand, where inter marriage is common, religious prohibitions against inter marriage between Moslems and others in Malaysia, race and religion defines politics and business. All significant political parties in Malaysia are defined by religion and most companies are predominated by Chinese, Indian, or Malay. The Malaysian "social contract" means that public administration is run by the Islam Malay while private business is run by the Chinese and Indians, save for "Bumiputra companies" encouraged by the Malaysian government to increase Malay participation in government.
China's official religion isn't one. Marx's belief that religion is the opium of the people gives authority to communist countries adopting beligerent policies towards any movement that has the potential to challenge the all-encompassing authority of the state. The communist countries, all that is Ceaser's is rendered to Caesar, and all that is God's is rendered to Ceaser!
China has moved to establish an "official" Catholic Church in China, appointing bishops who promise not to challenge the overall authority of the state. They can be viewed as an arm of the state apparatus, and China has received strong rebukes from the Vatican for appointing such bishops. Nevertheless, many Chinese remain faithful to their Buddhist faith, but it is personal rather than organised. The underground church in China is massive but illegal, as is all other forms of religion including "Falun Gong"- more of a sect than a religion, but a threat to the authority of the state. Communism can only survive when the state is supreme, hence the fast and often brutal suppression of new popular movements, of religious or political persuasion.
Hinduism is strong throughout India, Bali in Indonesia, and some of Indo China, though there are also major Hindu populations in Singapore and Malaysia or any areas in which Indians settled.
Christianity is most prevalent in Asia in the Philippines, introduced by the Spanish colonialists, and reinforced by the Americans after. Other significant Christian populations in Asia are in Sarawak in Malaysia. There are many Christians in Taiwan and Korea, Korea having the greatest proportions of christians after the Philippines. Several Pacific Islands, Australia and New Zealand are moninally Christian countries, though Australia and New Zealand, tolerate and indeed encourage practice of new immigrant's religion.
Many languages and dialects are spoken throughout Asia, but English is widely accepted as the common business language. English is the predominant language in Singapore, Malaysia and the Philippines and is widely spoken in India.
The Indonesian language is Indonesian, often referred to as "Bahasa Indonesia" - literally "language of Indonesia", based on Latin characters, the words often resembling English or French words. The language was introduced as a means of uniting the country following independence, but has failed to replace Javanese, Balinese, Sumatranese dialects outside key cities. Most Indonesians, even in Jakarta and in business, have a very rudimentary understanding of English. It is estimated that there around 200 to 300 languages and dialects spoken in the massive Indonesian archipelago.
English is almost unknown in Japan, though English brand names are, and simple greetings are understood. The reason? Its like asking the school ground giant "What language do you speak"? .."Anything I want!..." is the answer! Japan did not have to speak English to become an economic power, but as globalisation looms, more Japanese, especially the younger generation are speaking it. It is still unusual for top management to speak English.
China speaks hundreds of dialects depending on the province, but the written language - "Mandarin" is understood country wide. Major Chinese dialects are Cantonese (spoken widely in Hong Kong), Hokkien, and Hakka. As in Japan, the use of translators are essential for doing communication, usually provided by your local partner.
Malaysia's national language is also "Bahasa Melayu", introduced as a way of ridding colonial influences post colonialization. Government policy support for the national language has wavered throughout the last 2 decades, depending on the minister. It however has managed to be spoken almost universally in Malaysia, with most Malaysians being multi-lingual with most speaking Melayu and English and smaller groups speaking Melayu and the Chinese dialect for their families. Almost all Malaysians in business can speak English, especially in Kuala Lumpur. Many Malaysians in the provinces and provincial cities cannot speak or understand English.
All Thais speak the sanskrit-based Thai language, though the sounds are similar to Chinese. Laos speak Laotian, as do many in the Eastern regions of Thailand adjoining the Laos border. English literacy in Thailand is very low, and in surrounding countries such as Burma (Myanmar), Vietnam, and Cambodia.
Literacy rates are almost 100% in the wealthier countries such as Singapore, Japan, Malaysia, Korea, Hong Kong SAR, and Taiwan. In Indo-China, Indonesia, Thailand, and China it is lower.
For Singapore, Malaysia, Philippines and Indonesia see the dedicated country pages from the links on this page.
Columnists from the Asia Business Strategy & Street Intelligence Ezine also provide useful informal information on foreign operations. For China, see Piset Watanuvutikul's Awakening Dragon and Frank Yu's China Recon. For extra information on Thailand try Kriengsak Niratappanasai's Thailand Tales. For the Philippines try Clarence Henderson's Pearl of the Orient Seas. For extra information on China, Korea, Japan and Taiwan try Boye Lafayette de Mente's Asian Business Code Words.
Entering any Asian market involves commitment, patience, hard work and an almost inhuman tolerance for frustration. The rewards are high however, as long as you understand the market. This understanding can be achieved by working with local agents, valid and well targeted market research, and experience gained through personal meetings and physical observation. Don't depend always on your staff, go an look for yourself at times. It still amazes us that the CEO of Nike has never visited Indonesia, the location of his most controversial plants.
Most local business practices are summarized on this site for each country, but some are universal.
You will never know more about the consumer than locals. Know enough to feel comfortable. Locals are looking to make money like you. They are looking for advice on how to make money, not how much you know about them or their country. They will always know much more!
Guanxi is prevalent throughout Asia. Business is done through intermediaries, usually familial. Some of these intermediary levels are not essential for the business and just complicate things. However they are essential for your partner who needs to repay favours or involve his mates. It's just the way things are done around here.. Live with it..
Face is key. Most Asian business people rate people by external factors such as their perceived wealth, (the hotel you stay at, the maker of your clothes, your title, the status of your company, a doctorate degree from a prestigious university and your contacts). There is less emphasis on your capability in doing a job.
Asian business people are less direct than Westerners. If they don't like you or your offering, they will not tell you to your face. They will "tell you" by ignoring your follow up faxes and phone calls. You are meant to "take the hint".
Asian business people are usually infinitely patient. If you approach them, you are expected to convince them of your offering, not the other way around. You are expected to get to know them personally. Personal relationships are key. The quality of your product may be assured, but unless you can develop a personal relationship, progress will almost always grind to a halt.
If you keep on losing proposals when you know you offered the best one, don't feel personally affronted. It is highly likely in some countries (but definitely not all), that you lost due to the fact that others offered better kick backs, and favours to affiliated partners. Or that a more prestigious company was picked because there was less risk. Continually ask questions, and find out as much as you can on the informal bidding process.
Rod Davies, Orient Pacific Century Market Research